Apr 2009

Paintings as Rorshach Tests

Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from great personal success, or just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
John le Carre

As a result of the cold, wet, lousy, rainy, crummy, rotten, (did I mention cold?), spring we’ve had, I’ve been able to spend a lot more guilt-free hours in the studio, side stepping that gigantic list of outdoor chores waiting to devour my time. I’ve been working on some different types of paintings, the latest work, “The Red Sailboat,” is posted above.

This painting began life as a landscape study, something I typically don’t do a lot of. I’m always fascinated by the various textures colors and reflections of a location like this: a small creek flowing through the woods on a hot summer afternoon, but usually trying to convey scenic beauty is not something that I do a lot of. It’s not that landscape paintings don’t interest me or that I don’t appreciate them, but trying to capture the beauty of a scene for its own sake just isn’t something I care to spend much time with. So even though I began the painting with a landscape painter’s mindset, at some point the illustrator in me commandeered the process, a story began to reveal itself in my mind, and the red sailboat appeared in the picture.

Why the boat is there and exactly what narrative the painting conveys is not the point of the exercise. After all this is not designed as a piece created to illuminate a particular passage as one of my book illustrations might be. Instead the idea is to provide a framework, an impetus for the viewer to create a story of their own, a Rorshach test of sorts, wide open to interpretation. We assume when we see a particular work that the artist has a reason for its creation, and as interesting as it may be to think we are catching a glimpse of the heart, mind or soul of the creator, how much more revealing is it to hear the interpretation of a work by the viewer, who comes to the party with no such preconceived notions?

Unearthed Rough

I have come to the conclusion that my subjective account of my motivation is largely mythical on almost all occasions. I don’t know why I do things.
J.B.S. Haldane

It was dark in my studio. I didn’t realize it at first, I was a victim of gradual acceptance. But there was no denying it anymore, even with all the lights on and the lengthening spring days providing more light through the windows, it was definitely hard to see in here.

Although it had escaped me at first, the cause of the gloom would have been obvious to even the most casual onlooker. Huge piles of stuff, files, books, clippings, reference articles, empty cereal boxes, used cd cases, dried tubes of paint, markers, (does anyone still use markers?), animal bones, illustration board, broken drawing templates, paint hardened brushes, bird nests, cardboard saved for shipping things in, bits of broken pastels, and on and on, rose up all around me, masses of “too good to toss,” junk. The looming stacks of stuff, all considered invaluable to me for some reason, at one time or another, had accumulated in such numbers and had become piled so high,that they blocked out the sunlight from my windows and began to eclipse the light trying to fight its way down from the fixtures above.

It must have happened slowly, over time, but I guess I just become conditioned to walk the maze of pack-ratted debris and not notice the long, roundabout path it took to reach my easel, although I did notice that from the time I left the kitchen, until the time I sat down at the computer, my coffee would get cold. Every once and awhile I would hear a slight, faraway groan, sometimes followed by a puff of dust, as a pile collapsed under its own weight, the way an unsupported ceiling might give way in a coal mine.

Sighting safety reasons, my wife began refusing to let the kids enter the room. Boy Scouts in need of a Mountaineering Badge were beginning to line up in the driveway, the scoutmaster confiding, “It isn’t often an opportunity to scale peaks like those comes along, especially here in the Midwest. “ He peered up the full height of one of the stacks, paled, and checked a knot on one of the boy’s safety harness.

Meanwhile, I began to trail string out behind me as I entered the studio each morning, insurance that I could find my way back at the end of the day, and considered slipping a few dog treats in my pocket everyday before heading in. This way if there was a collapse, I reasoned, and I was buried, there was hope that my dog might be able to find me. Besides, if I was forced to eat them while waiting to be rescued, I was guaranteed whiter teeth and fresher breath.

Finally, as I sat by my easel in the barely-there light of noonday, teetering stockpiles of junk swaying menacingly overhead, I realized the time for easy solutions was past. There was nothing to be done but relocate the mountain goats and undertake a massive clean up, but after being denied federal stimulus money for the project, it was obvious, I would have to go it alone.

Hours of cleaning turned into days, turned into weeks, or so it seemed. But eventually the skies began to brighten again. The skyscrapers of accumulation gradually were reduced to smaller more manageable mounds, which in turn were sorted through, their contents categorized put away or discarded. There were a few surprises. I found some great watercolor board that I had been saving for just the right project, a pet cat named Chester that we assumed had run away, and a layout for a mural job that never came to pass. I always liked that rough. It was partly executed using markers.

Things are brighter in here again after the big cleanup. My coffee is still hot now when I carry it in from the kitchen and sit down at the keyboard. I do miss having the scouts drop by, but with the money I saved by canceling construction of the bobsled track I was able to replace a bunch of the ruined brushes and even buy some nicely textured paper that I’m eager to try out. I’m too busy to use it at the moment but I have it stacked over in the corner, where I won’t forget about it, right on top of the broken computer I’ve been meaning to get fixed.

The Witness

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.
James Baldwin

With a hectic schedule lately of illustration work, (not to mention the joys of tax season), it’s been very tough to find the time for some easel painting, but I finally have had a chance to complete a piece that I’ve had kicking around in my head for a while now. The idea for this painting came from roughly the same area that inspired, “The Visitor,” a small waterway flowing through a local forest preserve.

Surrounded by old industry and new subdivisions, the preserve is now a protected nature area, but if you look past the greenery there are all kinds of connections to a more mercenary past. There are still piles of gravel here and there, reminders of the limestone quarry that decades ago supplied the growing cities around the country with large slabs of stone which were transported to their destinations via the nearby canal. Tall old pine trees grow in neat rows, near a decaying limestone building, reminders of a former nursery. An old rail spur borders the property, the abandoned tracks popping up through the underbrush from time to time, yet another reminder of a commercial past. The entire locale has that distinctly Midwestern aura of sinewy, bare knuckles, no nonsense types, scrabbling hard to make a buck in a turn of the century industrial world and gives off a weird, almost gothic, vibe. It’s a beautiful, quiet place now, but it’s not hard to imagine a thousand stories of a loud, grimy, checkered past, barely concealed beneath the placid surface.

Walking along the creek, starring down into the muddy water, I thought about representing the idea that there were all kinds of stories waiting to be exhumed, the evidence of their existence hiding in plain sight. I thought about painting an object that could be act as a repository of past experiences and that’s when the idea of a long lost doll came to me.

She’s a stand in of sorts for the people who used to live and work here all those years ago. The kind of object that had been handed down from generation to generation, a silent onlooker, an inanimate member of the family that had been embraced, loved, and confided in, a keeper of secrets and desires. Outgrown and set aside, lost, or abandoned, the old doll is a receptacle for an accumulation of times both good and bad, a silent witness, a mute observer of the past.